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Greatest Hits: Noah and the Ark

Sunday October 13th 2019

Pastor Galen Zook

Genesis 6:11-22, Matthew 24:36-42

Noah and the Ark

The story of Noah and the Ark is one of the most iconic stories in the Hebrew Bible. The animals proceeding into the ark two by two, the earth covered by the waters of a massive flood, the boat eventually resting on the top of a mountain, and the rainbow as God’s promise never to destroy the Earth with a flood again.

Noah and the Ark makes for a wonderful children’s story, if you downplay the reality that almost every creature on earth was completely wiped out, with the exception of eight people and a pair of every kind of bird and animal. 

Actually, when you stop and imagine it, it’s a rather horrific story. People pounding on the sides of the ark, begging to be let inside as the flood waters rise, houses and villages and whole cities wiped out as the whole world is engulfed by water. Dead creatures floating to the surface and bodies intermingling with broken tree branches and shrapnel. Indescribable devastation.

The Ark as a Picture of Salvation

Christians have historically seen Noah’s ark as a symbol of Salvation, or of the Church. We know that there will be a day of ultimate judgement, and although God promised never to destroy the world with a flood again, as one Gospel song says, “it won’t be water, but fire the next time.” Just as Noah and his family looked to God for their salvation during the day of destruction, so we too can find our hope only in the Lord.

This is the main lesson for us to learn from this story.

Before the Flood Came

But this morning I’d like to focus in on the time before the flood. The time before Noah and his family entered into the ark, before Noah gathered the animals, before there was ever a rainbow or even a cloud in the sky.

We actually don’t know how long it took Noah to build the ark. We know from Genesis chapter 5 that the three sons who came into the ark with him were born after he had turned 500 years old (Gen. 5:32), he was 600 years old when the flood came (Gen. 7:11), and he lived 350 more years after the flood, to the ripe old age of 950 years old (Gen. 9:28). I guess people had better genes back then!

What that means is that Noah had already lived 2/3rd of his life before the flood came. That means it probably took him and his sons decades to build the ark — and if you look at the dimensions of the ark, you can see why. The ark was about 510 feet long — in other words, about 1.5 football fields! Without modern technology and using only hand tools, this would have been an extensive project. 

Not only that, but traveling around the world and gathering up 2 of every kind of bird and animal in the world, figuring out exactly what types of food every animal would need to eat to survive on the ark, and deciding what sorts of pens and cages each animal would need and custom building them to fit on the ark — all of this could easily have been a life-long project.

I can’t help but imagine that somehow Noah had been preparing for this task all of his life, whether he knew it or not. Noah was probably one of those kids with a voracious appetite for learning everything and anything there was to learn. He loved playing with toy boats and animals. When people asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up, he had trouble deciding between being a carpenter, architect, nautical engineer, zookeeper, or a vineyard owner. In the end he got to do all of the above!

I’m sure there were days when Noah wondered whether his life had any purpose, any  meaning. Even after God commanded him to build a huge boat, he had to wonder, had he had heard God correctly? Noah and his family probably spent every evening and weekend sawing lumber, hammering nails, and collecting exotic animals. Then they had to wake up early the next morning to work at their regular jobs in order to make ends meet and earn a living. It all probably seemed like a rather absurd hobby to those around them, and I’m sure their friends, neighbors and family members watched with amusement, if not with outright mockery or scorn.

Meanwhile, life continued as normal for everyone around them. Jesus tells us in Matthew 24 that “in those days before the flood [people] were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark” (Matthew 24:38). But Noah wasn’t able to live like everyone else. He couldn’t ignore the warning signs. God had told him what was going to happen and what he needed to do, and Noah was compelled to act. 

Noah – Preacher of Righteousness

The New Testament book of 2nd Peter chapter 2 verse 5 describes Noah as a “preacher” or “herald” of righteousness, or justice. This is interesting, because in the book of Genesis we never hear Noah speak until after the flood. The Genesis account never indicates that Noah warned others to “flee from the wrath that is to come” like John the Baptist did in Luke 3:7. Instead what we see is Noah humbly and obediently carrying out God’s commands, building the ark to the exact dimensions that God laid out, and going around collecting animals and gathering food. 

So how then was Noah a “preacher of righteousness”? I want to propose to us this morning that it was Noah’s actions, rather than his words, that 2 Peter is referring to. As the saying goes, “actions speak louder than words.” There are many people who talk the talk but don’t live the walk. Many people can say a lot of things that sound deep and theological or philosophical, but whose words are not backed up with actions. 

Noah, on the other hand, was different. He didn’t use a lot of empty words. Nor did he seek to conform to the status quo. He wasn’t concerned with following the crowd, with fitting in, with keeping up appearances. Noah marched to the beat of a different drum. He had a higher calling, he was serving a greater purpose. 

There were some days, for sure, where his daily tasks might not have seemed too different from those around him. He went to the hardware store to buy more nails, the lumberyard to pick up more cypress wood, to the library to check out one more book on shipbuilding. But overall his life testified to the work that God was doing in him and through him, and to the world that was watching, Noah’s life screamed of righteousness and justice.

You Can’t Save the World Alone

Some of you might be here this morning, and you wonder what impact you can possibly have on the world.  You see the brokenness and injustice in the world around you. Perhaps there’s a particular issues that burdens or concerns you. Perhaps it’s the slow and steady destruction of the environment. Perhaps it’s the species that are becoming endangered or extinct. Maybe it’s escalating violence or homelessness or drug addiction in our city. Maybe it’s systems that perpetuate pain and injustice that seem to go unchecked. Maybe you’re just particularly burdened and concerned for friends and family members who are struggling with health or financial concerns.

You wonder, when is God going to come back to make everything right? And in the meantime you wonder what can you possibly do? The needs of the world — and even just our city and community — seem so great. 

And yet we have to go to work. We have bills to pay, e-mails to respond to, children or grandchildren to take to school or baseball practice. We have leaves to rake, dishes to wash, and a to-do list that seems to grow by the minute. So how can we possibly save the world?

Well the reality is that we can’t. We couldn’t, even if we had nothing else on our plates. We can’t fix all of the brokenness in the world. Only God can do that. But God can use us, in big and in small ways, each and every day, if only we are faithful to obey God’s commands. 

Maybe on the surface the things God is calling you to do don’t seem that grand. Maybe God hasn’t called you to build a huge boat or to collect two of every kind of animal on the planet. But maybe you can adopt one pet. Maybe God is calling you to sponsor a child who is hungry, or to send a card to a loved-one who is sick. Maybe God is prompting you to take a home-cooked meal to a grieving neighbor, or to invite an international student or a refugee family to join you for Thanksgiving dinner.

Although Noah’s task was enormous, he started small. He picked up a hammer and a nail, and nailed the first two pieces of wood together for the ark. And then he kept at it, and followed God’s instructions until the task was finished. He didn’t try to save every single animal on the planet — just two of every kind. He wasn’t even able to convince everyone in his own town or village or extended family to join him in the ark — only his immediate family members joined him. But he obeyed what God told him to do, and in the end God used him to preserve life on the planet.

“Preachers” of Righteousness

God is calling each of us to be “preachers” of righteousness. Not just with the words we say, but perhaps even more significantly with the lives we live. 

And so let us march to the beat of God’s drum. Let us live lives of honesty and integrity, compassion and justice in a world where such qualities are so often lacking. Let’s show the world that there is a different way to live. Let’s love our neighbors, and even our enemies. Let’s follow God’s commands. And let’s allow our words and deeds to point others to the One who truly can save, heal, and redeem this world, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

Greatest Hits: Adam and Eve

Sunday October 6th 2019

Pastor Galen Zook

Genesis 3:1-7; 2. Cor. 15:20-26

Greatest Hits

Here in the month of October we are starting a series which I’m calling “Greatest Hits: Revisiting the Bible Stories that you Grew up With.”

If you grew up attending Sunday School then you probably heard many of these stories over and over again. If you didn’t grow up in church or Sunday school then some of these stories may be new to you, but many are probably stories that you have least heard referenced in popular culture or movies. The stories of Adam and Eve, David and Goliath, Queen Esther, Joseph and the coat of many colors (or the “Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat”), have taken on a life of their own and captured the imagination of children and adults for thousands of years. 

And yet sometimes we may tend to think that we’ve outgrown these stories. As we grow older we’re tempted to believe that we’ve learned all of the moral lessons there are to learn from these stories.

But, for the next couple of months we’re going to revisit some of these favorite stories, to see if there might be an angle that we may have missed, to see if it might be a moral lesson for us to learn that may relate to us as teenagers or adults in perhaps a slightly different way than they did when we were children. So come along with me on this journey as we start today near the very beginning of the Bible, in Genesis chapters 2 and 3, with the story of Adam and Eve.

Adam and Eve

In Genesis 2, God created the first man, called Adam, and placed him in the Garden of Eden to take care of the Garden. God said that he could eat of every tree in the garden except the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. But God saw that it wasn’t good for Adam to be alone, so God created all of the animals and birds and fish, but none of them were a suitable partner for Adam, so God caused a deep sleep to come over Adam, took one of Adam’s ribs out of his side, and created a woman. When Adam saw the woman, Eve, he said that she was “bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh;… And the man and his wife were both naked, and were not ashamed” (Gen. 2:23-24).

Sounds great, right? But in the very next chapter, we see that the serpent came to them and tempted them to eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, which they did. Immediately they realized that they were naked and they sewed fig leaves together to hide their nakedness. Soon after that they heard God walking in the garden, and they hid, but of course God found them. Adam blamed Eve, Eve blamed the serpent, and they were all cursed and banished from the garden, but not before God made clothes for them out of animal skins.

Now this story, at its simplest and purest form, teaches us that we ought always to obey God’s instructions. We learn that God wants the best for us, and even if we don’t understand why God tells us to do or not to do something, we should always obey God. 

We also learn through this story that God wants us to have free will — not to be robots who are forced to do what God tells us to do. God created people with the choice to do good or evil, to follow God’s instructions or to go their own way. Unfortunately, Adam and Eve disobeyed God and chose to do what they thought was best for themselves, but they ended up bringing death and destruction upon themselves.

Distortions of the Story of Adam and Eve

Now in addition to these moral lessons, the story of Adam and Eve has often been used throughout history to argue for or against any number of different social or political agendas — unfortunately it has often been abused and misinterpreted to argue for the suppression of the rights of women. Since the story indicates that Eve was the first one to partake of the forbidden fruit, some throughout human history have used this story to argue for the moral inferiority of women, even claiming that Eve seduced her husband into sinning as well. 

Others, including a prominent Christian preacher who I heard on the radio not too long ago, blame Adam, claiming that he failed to live up to his God-given responsibility to be the “head of the household” and that he is at fault for not correctly and accurately delivering God’s commands to his wife Eve. This is a particularly vicious interpretation of the story since it seems to indicate that women were created from the very beginning to be subservient to men and that men were supposed to be the mediators between God and women!

Made In God’s Image

But if we look more closely at the Genesis narrative, we see that the story of Adam and Eve is actually one of two stories back-to-back in Genesis chapters 1-3 about the creation of the universe. The first story, found in Genesis chapter 1, makes it abundantly clear that men and women were both made in the image of God (Gen. 1:27),  and proclaims that men and women were given the mandate to care for all of creation. Men and women were meant to be co-laborers, coregents — ruling over creation, being fruitful and multiplying and filling the earth (Gen. 1:28).

In the story of Adam and Eve, although it is true that Adam was created first, it’s important to note that Eve was taken from a rib from Adam’s side, connoting equal partnership, rather than a bone from his head, leg or foot.

It’s also important to note that the story clearly states that Adam and Eve were together when they chose to disobey the Lord (Gen. 3:6). They both seemed to know God’s instructions, and they both knowingly decided to go against God’s command, enticed by the serpent who caused them to question God’s intentions.

Our Help in Times of Trouble

One of the most significant phrases that has so often been misinterpreted and misapplied by those of us who’ve never read the text in its original Hebrew language is the word often translated “helper” or “help meet” in English. In Genesis 2:18 the text says, “The Lord God said, ‘It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.’”

To us, this seems to indicate a subservient relationship. But nothing could be further from the truth! In actuality, the Hebrew word ‘Ezer often translated “helper” is most often used to describe God throughout the Hebrew Bible, as in Psalm 115 where the Scriptures say, “O Israel, trust in the Lord! He is their help and their shield” (Psalm 115:9). In fact, every other time that this word is used in the positive in the Hebrew Bible it refers to God! (see for example Deut. 33:26, Psalm 33:20, Psalm 121:2: “I lift up my eyes to the mountains—where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth.”)

God is our helper, or an even more helpful way of thinking about it might be “rescuer.” God rescues God’s people from their enemies, from danger and natural disasters, just as Eve rescued Adam from his loneliness. Rather than a pattern for hierarchical marital relationships or indicative of who is supposed to be in charge in the household or in society, the story of Adam and Eve shows that we were made to be in equal partnerships and to live together in community, that it is not good for any of us to be alone, and that God has given us the blessing of other people to be in our lives so that we know we are not in this by ourselves.

Of course, we see in Genesis 3 that after Adam and Eve partook of the forbidden fruit, they were punished. God told Eve that her pain would be increased in childbearing, that her desire would be for her husband, and that her husband would rule over her (Gen. 3:16). God tells Adam that he will have to work hard and toil to survive, “by the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Gen. 3:19).

But the curse found in Genesis 3 is descriptive, not prescriptive! In other words, it is a realistic depiction of the way life would be for Adam and Eve now that they deviated from God’s plan. It is in no way a prescription of the way things are supposed to be. 

And so we work to overturn the effects of the curse. We search for ways to make life better and easier, we seek to lessen the effects of pain and sickness, we seek to prolong life and make things more equitable and just in our society, just as God intended from the very beginning. 

The Story of All of Us

Now it’s easy for us to shake our heads in disgust at Adam and Eve, to blame them for all of the pain and death and destruction that we see in the world. Adam and Eve had everything they could have ever wanted and needed. Why did they have to disobey God and mess everything up for the rest of us?

But in so many ways, the story of Adam and Eve is the story of every single one of us. Every person in the world is born naked and unashamed. Every single one of us is born with freedom of choice. We are born with the potential to make a positive or negative impact in the world.

But each and every one of us at various times in our lives doubt the goodness of God and question God’s intentions for our lives, and we disobey God’s commands. And each of us in large and in small ways, every single day, choose to go against God’s plan, to do the things that we think are best for us but that in the end hurt us and those around us, and sometimes those who come after us. The story of Adam and Eve is the story of each one of us.

Jesus

But the story of Adam and Eve is also the story of God’s desire to relate to us as human beings. 

In the story of Adam and Eve we see that even after they ate the forbidden fruit, God still came to walk with them in the cool of the evening. When they hid, God called out to them and searched for them. And when God saw that they were ashamed of what they had done and were afraid to stand before God, God clothed them with animal skins to take away their shame.

Throughout the Bible we see God continue to search and seek out God’s people. God continually sent prophets, judges, kings, and others to call the people back to God.

Ultimately God sent Jesus, to give his life for us, to show us the way to God. Jesus demonstrated God’s love, grace, and mercy to us, even to the point of giving his life for us on the cross.

This is what we remember and celebrate when we partake in communion. We remember God’s love for us, and that even though we have not loved God with our whole heart, even though we have broken God’s law, still God forgives us. Still Jesus gave himself for us.

Galatians chapter 3 says that those of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been clothed with Christ! (Gal. 3:27) That’s so much better than fig leaves or animal skins! Now we can stand before God without fear and without shame because we have been forgiven and cleansed by the shed blood of Jesus Christ. The effects of the curse are being reversed! God has forgiven us and made us new and restored us in relationship with God and with one another, and God is in the process of forming us and transforming us more and more into the likeness of Christ. Of course, we still mess up, we still go our own way, but we have been given the Holy Spirit to live inside of us, to convict us when we’ve gone astray, and to draw us back to God. 

As we read in the book of Lamentations, “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; [God’s] mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness”! (Lamentations 3:22-23, ESV)

No More Fine Print

Sunday September 22nd 2019

Pastor Galen Zook

Jeremiah 31:31-34

Fine Print

How many of you always read all of the fine print when you sign a contract or document? The “fine print” is the part of an agreement or document, usually at the bottom, that, according to Merriam Webster dictionary, spells out “restrictions and limitations often in small type or obscure language.”

If you are one of those people who always reads all of the fine print on every document that you sign, then you are most likely in the minority of people. Recently a teacher in Georgia by the name of Donelan Andrews won $10,000 for being one of the few people to actually read all of the fine print on her travel insurance policy. The company wanted to encourage people to read their policy documents, so they buried a secret reward for the first person who read through the whole policy. “’If you’ve read this far, then you are one of the very few Tin Leg customers to review all of their policy documentation,’ the fine print read. It included an email address and said the first person who replied would win the prize” (CBS News).

When it comes to reading the Terms of Service, or Privacy Policies on-line, apparently only 1 in 1,000 people actually read them (according to Forbes Magazine). 

If you don’t read all of the fine print, it makes sense why not. Researchers at Carnegie Mellon recently published a paper suggesting that it would take 76 work days to read all of the privacy policies that an average internet user encounters in a given year!  Imagine spending 15 work weeks just so you could keep up to date on how not to let Internet companies violate your privacy! The fine print on policies and documents and contracts and social media websites has gotten out of hand.

Covenant and Law

Our scripture reading from Jeremiah today is all about laws and covenants, which are sort of like contracts. But before you just skim past this or click away, there’s something different about the covenant that God wants to establish with us. Jeremiah tells us that God wants to write God’s laws — not in teeny tiny print at the bottom of a long boring contract — but instead God wants to write God’s law on our hearts. 

But before we unpack what that means, let me just remind us how we got here.

Jeremiah 

Today we’re wrapping up a 4-week series on the book of Jeremiah. 

In the first part of our series, we saw that the people of Israel had turned away from God and were worshipping false idols. Jeremiah likened the people of Israel to people futilely and desperately trying to dig out cisterns, or wells, into solid rock to collect rainwater, but the cisterns they dug were cracked and couldn’t hold water. And all they had to do was to turn around and to drink from the fountain of living water that is God.

The following week, we journeyed with Jeremiah down to the potter’s house, where we learned that the prophecies that God had given Jeremiah and the other prophets were not for the purpose of causing the people to fatalistically throw up their hands and say, “well, we’re doomed so there’s nothing we can do about it!” instead, the prophecies — even the ones about God’s punishment and wrath, were for the purpose of causing people to wake up and repent, to turn around, and to turn to God. If they had turned back to God, God would not have brought the punishment that Jeremiah predicted.

But last week we learned that the people of Israel had foolishly ignored Jeremiah’s warnings to turn back to God, and God had allowed them to be taken far away from their homeland. They hoped they would soon be able to return home, but we read the letter that the prophet Jeremiah sent to the captives in Babylon, in which he told them that they should settle in and make the best of it — to build houses and plant gardens, and seek the peace and wellbeing of the city where they lived, because it was going to be a full seventy years before they would be allowed to return home.

Old Covenant

And now today in Jeremiah 31:31-34 we see Jeremiah looking far into the future – past the 70 years of exile in Babylon, past even the Israelite’s return to Jerusalem, all the way to the New Covenant that Jesus would one-day institute. We see Jeremiah prophesying about this time when God’s laws would be written on the hearts and minds of God’s people. 

Now if the New Covenant would be written on people’s hearts and minds, what was the Old Covenant written on? Well, according to Exodus 31:18, the covenant that God made with the people of Israel at Mt. Sinai was written on two tablets made of stone, and they were “written with the finger of God” (Ex. 31:18). Of course, the ten commandments that were inscribed in stone were only part of the covenant — the whole Mosaic Covenant (which was presumably written on scrolls) consisted of 613 commandments, or mitzvots, including 365 negative commandments and 248 positive commandments. 

Talk about a lot of fine print! And if you’ve ever read through Leviticus and Deuteronomy, it can sometimes feel like reading through an online privacy policy, with all it’s obscure language and legalize. Many of the laws were written to address specific issues in the community that probably many of us have never encountered today — like what to do if your brother’s ox falls into a ditch on the Sabbath day!

But this wasn’t the type of fine print or privacy policy that you wanted to scroll past or ignore. As the Israelites found out the hard way, the Mosaic Covenant was about life and death, blessings and curses. And it was because they chose to ignore God’s commandments and turned away and worshipped idols that they ended up in Babylon. 

New Covenant

But Jeremiah tells them that there will come a time when God’s laws will be written — not on stone tablets or on scrolls — but on people’s hearts and minds. A time when no one would need to “teach their neighbor, or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest” (Jeremiah 31:34), a time when our sins would not only be forgiven, but when God would not even remember the sins of God’s people.

In other words, God’s people won’t just know about God – they will know God personally, intimately. They won’t just follow a list of rules, they will live and breathe God’s word. God’s people will not live in constant fear of breaking God’s laws but will instead rest in the assurance of God’s love, mercy and grace.

Now, it’s worth noting that in speaking about this new covenant, Jeremiah is not putting down the covenant that God made with the people back on Mt. Sinai. In fact, Jeremiah describes how God had led the people out of Egypt “by the hand” (Jer. 31:32) and how God “was a husband to them” (Jer. 31:32). But it takes both parties to uphold a contract, and although God faithfully upheld God’s side of the contract, the people had broken their side of the bargain. Because of that, God is going to make a new contract (or covenant) with humanity, one that will not be composed of a list of external rules imposed upon us, but one that will come about through the inward transformation of our hearts and minds (see Romans 12:2).

The book of Hebrews in the New Testament, written after the death and resurrection of Christ, quotes these verses from Jeremiah and tells us that Jeremiah’s prophecy was ultimately fulfilled through the ministry of Jesus Christ (Hebrews 8:6-13). And our communion liturgy reminds us that it was “By the baptism of [Jesus’s] suffering, death, and resurrection” that we were delivered from slavery to sin and death, and it was through Christ’s ministry that God “made with us a new covenant by water and the Spirit.”

God’s Law Written On Our Hearts

Now for some, this concept is of God writing God’s law on our hearts and minds sounds a little scary. To have God’s law written onto our hearts describes a level of closeness and proximity that some of us might not feel comfortable with. Some of us might prefer to keep God at a distance, to read and study about God rather than to have God so intimately involved in our lives. 

But there’s something so beautiful and life-giving here that I don’t want us to miss. As we learned earlier in Jeremiah, God is a fountain of living water, and God is inviting us to drink deeply from that fountain. The whole purpose of the law given on Mt. Sinai was to help people get to know who God is. But because of Christ we can know God personally, intimately. We don’t have to just read stories about God, nor do we have to spend our lives simply reading through all of the rules and regulations and all of the fine print to know if we can trust God or take God at God’s Word — instead we can have the Word of God, and the Holy Spirit, living inside of us, empowering us to live faithfully each moment of the day.

And sure, we’re going to make mistakes. At times we’re going to go astray. But when we do, God’s Spirit is right there with us, guiding us back on course, reminding us anew of God’s love and grace, God’s mercy and forgiveness and peace.

Spring Water Commercials

As people who have God’s law written onto our hearts, sometimes we think that our role is to condemn everyone around us for not obeying God’s laws.

But as people of faith, I see our role sort of like a commercial for bottled spring water. You know how you come home from work, and all you want to do is plop down on the couch and watch TV. But then a commercial for bottled spring water comes on the TV, and by the end of the commercial, you don’t want to just take a sip of bottled water. You wish you could dip in and splash and play in the cool refreshing spring where that water comes from. You want to just stand under that waterfall and throw your head back and drink deeply.

And that should be our goal as Christians — not to guilt people into reading the Bible or condemning them for not going to church or knowing God’s Word — but instead to live in such a way that others want to experience the source of our joy, to experience God for themselves, and to drink deeply of the fountain of living water. 

As people who have the Word of God written onto our hearts, let’s show the world how good God is! Let’s proclaim how wonderful and amazing God’s love is, and let’s invite others to drink deeply of the fountain of living water.

Seek the peace of the city

Sunday September 15th 2019

Pastor Galen Zook

Jeremiah 29:1,4-7

Never In Their Wildest Dreams

Sometimes we end up in a situation in life that we never expected to find ourselves in.

Perhaps it’s a job that you never expected you would be working at. Perhaps it’s a house or community where you never imagined you’d live. Maybe it’s a relationship that you didn’t expect to be in. Or maybe you expected to be in a relationship at this point in your life, and you’re surprised that you’re not.

The Israelites never expected to find themselves in Babylon, even though Jeremiah had warned that if they didn’t mend their ways and turn back to God that God would allow them to be taken into captivity.

Although they never thought it would happen, indeed they were taken captive — forced to march almost a thousand miles from their home. Taken against their will to a place where people spoke a different language, ate different types of food, and dressed differently, thought differently, worshipped differently. The climate was different, the houses were different, there was absolutely nothing that felt familiar.

And in many ways they didn’t want it to ever feel familiar. They never wanted to feel at home in Babylon. They wanted to go back to Israel, back to everything that they knew, everything that they had grown up with. They wanted to sleep in their own beds, talk to their friends and families, eat their favorite foods, and shop in their familiar marketplaces. They wanted life to just go back to being normal.

This is not where they had ever imagined that would be. Never in their wildest dreams did they think they would end up here.

Meanwhile back in Jerusalem…

Meanwhile, the prophet Jeremiah had been left back in Jerusalem. I don’t know why Jeremiah wasn’t taken along with all the best and brightest to Babylon. Perhaps the Babylonian captors didn’t feel the need to bring the fiery prophet who was always prophesying doom and gloom with them to Babylon. 

But so it was, that while many of the Israelites sat far away in Babylon, waiting and hoping that they would soon be able to return home, Jeremiah received a prophecy from the Lord, which he sent as a letter to those living in exile in Babylon.

Jeremiah’s Letter to the Exiles

The word from the Lord was essentially: “unpack your bags!” Settle in. Take off your shoes, make yourselves at home, because it is going to be a while. In fact it’s going to be seventy years. Seventy long years. Long enough that probably all of those who had been taken into exile would die in Babylon. Their grandchildren might get to return to their homeland, but the majority of those who had been taken captive would never see home again for themselves.

So Jeremiah tells them that it’s going to be a while, so they might as well make the best of it. Settle down, have children. Roll up their sleeves and get busy planting gardens and building houses. And seek the peace and the prosperity of the city where they lived.

This last past part probably came as quite a bit of a shock. Seek the what? Seek the peace and prosperity of the city of our captors? The captors who forced us to march hundreds of miles away from our homeland against our will?  Are you sure you don’t mean that we should pray for the destruction of Babylon and the peace of Jerusalem? Shouldn’t we pray that God would reign fire down out of the sky and consume our enemies? You really want us to seek the peace and prosperity of Babylon, and pray to God on its behalf??

But indeed this is what God was calling them to do. And the only explanation given to them is that if the city where they live prospers, then they too will prosper. 

If they want to prosper in this land where they were taken against their will, if they want to flourish in this place where they never thought they would end up, then they should pray, build, plant, and seek the peace and prosperity of the city where they live.

Praying and Working for Peace

Some of you had your lives mapped out from the moment you were old enough to talk. You knew what you wanted to be when you grew up. You knew what type of family you were going to have, what type of house you would live in, what type of person you would be married to.

But things rarely work out the way we planned. To paraphrase the poet Robert Burns,

The best laid schemes of mice and men often go awry

And leave us nought but grief and pain, For promised joy.

And so we are often faced with the choice — to be resentful, angry and bitter that things didn’t work out the way we had planned, or to make the best of whatever situation we find ourselves in. 

There are, of course, times when we need to change our circumstances — in the case of an abusive relationship, we should escape if at all possible. And there are other times when we may feel God calling us to move — to seek out a job that is more lifegiving or that pays the bills, a housing situation that is more adequate.

But there are other times when God calls us to stay. To make ourselves at home. To settle in, and to roll up our sleeves and try to make the situation better. Plant gardens. Plant trees. Build houses. To work for the peace and prosperity of the place where we live, work, or play. Even when our boss gets on our nerves. 

Even when it seems like our job is going nowhere. Even when our neighbors are being noisy or nosy. Even when our friends or loved ones are not being so loving, we are called to pray for them. Not to pray that God would curse them or reign down fire out of heaven to consume them, but that God would help them to prosper and to flourish. For when we pray for the shalom — the peace, the wholeness, the prosperity of others, then we too will find shalom.

As Jesus commanded in the Sermon on the Mount, we are to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us, that we may be children of our Father in heaven (Matthew 5:44).

And we’re called to pray and work for the peace of the city where we live.

The Peace of Baltimore

We live in a city that is known to have quite a few issues. The president of our country even described parts of Baltimore as a “disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess” and tweeted that “no human being would want to live there.” And in truth, there are probably many people who wish they could live somewhere other than here. 

But there are also many in our city (including many of you!) who are actively working for the peace and prosperity of our city, many who are building houses and planting gardens, and praying for the peace and prosperity of our city. Many of you have the option to live wherever you want, and yet you choose to remain here, to work for the good of the community, to be a peaceful presence in our city that is so often known for violence.

During the past few years I’ve been privileged to get to know many pastors and ministry leaders, educators and businesspeople, and even lawyers and politicians who are working for the peace and prosperity of our city. On a monthly basis I gather together with other pastors from throughout the city to lift up the needs of our communities in prayer. While there are many needs in Baltimore, this is also so much good that is being done.

Some days it seems hopeless. Some days it seems that no matter how much good is being done, that things are getting worse. Some days it seems like the darkness might overcome the light. We see people that we grew up with who now look like a shadow of themselves, places we used to frequent when we were younger that are now vacant or abandoned. We see the divisions in our city grow stronger, the hatred and animosity and violence increase. We worry about safety, we worry about our friends and loved ones. We worry about where all of this is heading.

And yet we know that God has placed us here. This is where God has called us to be. And it might be a while until the Lord returns to make everything right.

And so we plant. We pray. We build. We seek. We combine faith and action, prayer and work. We join community associations. We look out for our neighbors. We pick up trash, water the flowers, and pull up weeds. We plan parades, and Family Fun Nights. We give out food to those who are hungry, and provide clothes to those who are in need. We gather for worship, we invite anyone and everyone to join us in praying and seeking the peace and prosperity of this city in which we dwell.

Seek the shalom — the peace, prosperity, wholeness, flourishing — of the city where you dwell, for in it’s shalom you will find your shalom.

I’d like to end with the words of a song that is in our United Methodist Hymnal, entitled “All Who Love and Serve Your City” (UMH 433)

All who love and serve your city,

all who bear its daily stress,

all who cry for peace and justice,

all who curse and all who bless:

In your day of loss and sorrow,

in your day of helpless strife,

honor, peace, and love retreating,

seek the Lord, who is your life.

In your day of wealth and plenty,

wasted work and wasted play,

call to mind the word of Jesus,

“Work ye yet while it is day.”

For all days are days of judgment,

and the Lord is waiting still,

drawing near to all who spurn him,

offering peace from Calvary’s hill.

Risen Lord, shall yet the city

be the city of despair?

Come today, our Judge, our Glory,

be its name, “The Lord is there!”

Clay Pots

Sunday September 8th 2019

Pastor Galen Zook

Jeremiah 18:1-11; 1 John 1:5-9

Secret Decoder Ring

How many of you when you were younger were ever fortunate enough to acquire a “secret decoder ring”? When I was little, the best place to get these was from the inside of a cereal box or Cracker Jack box. With a secret decoder ring you could send encrypted messages back and forth to your friends. And if a friend send a message to you that was written in code, you could use the secret decoder ring to decipher their encrypted message. 

Well here in Jeremiah, the prophet Jeremiah is given a sort of secret decoder ring that helps him understand the nature and purpose of biblical prophecy. God’s words to Jeremiah here in Jeremiah 18 help us decode not only Jeremiah’s prophecies, but all of the prophetic passages throughout the Bible.

But before we get to that, we have to journey along with the prophet Jeremiah down to the potter’s house.

The Potter’s House

I don’t know what Jeremiah had been doing or what his plans were for that day, but one day Jeremiah felt God telling him to go down to the potter’s house and to observe the potter in action, making clay pots on a pottery wheel. 

Today handmade pottery is a luxury item. Most of us probably only have handmade pottery if we know someone who makes pottery, or if we like to invest in expensive artifacts. 

But in Bible times, pottery would have been a standard household item. People used clay pots for hauling water and storing food, and they would have used clay bowls for serving and eating food. And all of this pottery would have been made by hand. 

Since pottery was such a standard household item, going to the pottery store was sort of like making a trip to Wal-mart or Target. It would have been a normal household chore, something that one would not normally write about in their journal or diary. 

But for Jeremiah, this trip was unique, because he felt like God had something to teach him, something to show him. So he watched the potter with careful, rapt attention. 

And as he watched, he noticed that the potter never threw clay away. If he made a mistake, or if there was some sort of flaw in the pot that he was making, he simply balled the clay up, set it back on the pottery wheel, and began again, sometimes molding the clay into a completely different type of vessel. 

I took a pottery class in college, and one of my favorite things about working with clay was that it was so easy to start over, because I made a lot of mistakes.

There are any number of reasons why a potter might choose to start over. Perhaps the lump of clay isn’t completely centered on the pottery wheel, causing the bowl or cup to become slanted or skewed. Perhaps the clay is too dry, and the potter needs to add some more water to it. Or perhaps there might be a small stone or pebble mixed into the clay and the potter might want to remove it before reworking it into a new vessel. Or perhaps, as in my college ceramics class, the potter is simply learning, and wants to experiment with making different types of pots.

As Jeremiah stood there watching the potter at work, he sensed God telling him that what this potter was doing represented what God was doing with the people of Israel. God was molding and shaping them, God was molding them like a potter molds a piece of clay.

Jeremiah’s Prophetic Vocation

As Jeremiah continued to watch the potter at work, Jeremiah sensed God telling him something even bigger and more profound than what God was doing at that moment — and it had to do with the very nature and purpose of prophecy, which was Jeremiah’s life work.  God wanted him to understand the purpose of the words that God was asking Jeremiah to speak to the people.

You see, often we think of prophecy as a prediction, a statement about what’s going to happen in the future, sort of like a fortune teller staring into a crystal ball. But in the Bible, prophets such as Jeremiah were tasked with speaking God’s words to the people.

For Jeremiah, those words usually had to do with God’s impending judgement on people. Because of this, many people probably thought of Jeremiah as a prophet of “doom and gloom” — sort of a half-crazed man walking around shouting that “the end is near”! 

But God reveals something to Jeremiah at the potter’s house that radically reshapes his understanding of the purpose of biblical prophecy. And this is a perspective that should make us go back and take a new look at every other piece of prophetic literature in the Bible. Because in this passage in Jeremiah, God’s heart is revealed. 

And here’s the radical truth that we learn at the potter’s house: the prophecies that were written down in the Bible did not have to take place. All the doom and gloom, all the foretelling of death and destruction, all of the wars, and violence, the invading armies and the plagues and floods were not written in stone. They were meant as warnings.

We learn here that the Bible is not some sort of fatalistic book about a dystopian future over which we have no control. Instead, each and every one of the prophecies in the Bible is written for the purpose of waking people up, to cause them to turn from their destructive patterns, to stop sinning and committing injustice, and to turn back to God.

Biblical prophecy is meant to compel people to repent and turn back to God. This is why God sent the prophets, this is why God sent Jeremiah. 

This is why God asked the prophets to write their prophecies down, this is why God sent prophets not just to the people of Israel, but to other nations as well. God wanted the people to know the end results, the logical outcome of their evil actions. God wanted them to know what would happen if they didn’t turn back.

God wanted them to heed the warnings before it was too late.

God tells Jeremiah that any time a nation that God has promised to destroy repents and turns from their sin, then God will forgive. God will not bring the disaster that God had intended to bring on it.

This is good news! This is actually wonderful news! It means that there is always a glimmer of hope, always a path to life. The future has not been written in stone, there is always time to turn back and be healed and forgiven. 

As 1 John 1:9 says, “If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).

We see this played out in the story of Jonah. Jonah walked through the city of Nineveh prophesying that the city would be destroyed.  But the citizens of Nineveh repented in response to Jonah’s preaching, and God does not bring the destruction upon their city that Jonah had foretold. 

The Flip Side

But there was also a flip side to all of this as well. And that is that God also told Jeremiah that no nation was safe either. That when God prophesied blessings and bountiful provisions on a nation, if that nation turned away from God and began to do evil, then God could also change God’s mind about the good that God had intended to do to that nation. 

Just as God was ready and willing to forgive any nation that repented and turned to God, so too God’s blessings were provisional. No nation gets a pass. No nation gets total immunity. 

And then this section ends with God warning even the nation of Israel, God’s chosen people, God’s chosen possession, that they too would be judged unless they turned back to God in repentance and changed their evil ways.

All of this must have come as quite a surprise to many of the Israelite people, who thought that because they were God’s chosen people, it didn’t matter what they did, God would overlook their sin and wrongdoing. They thought by nature of their culture and ethnicity and nationality that they had an “in” with God. But God wanted them to know before it was too late that the path they were heading down was a path towards destruction. God wanted them to turn back before it was too late.

Take Heed

As Americans living in the twenty-first century, it’s easy for us to think that we, like the Israelites in Jeremiah’s day, are God’s chosen, special people. After all, our nation was founded on the stated principles of freedom and equality (although that freedom and equality did not extend to women, slaves, or Native Americans). Our Pledge of Allegiance states that we are “one nation under God,” and even our currency proclaims that “In God We Trust.” Because of this, so often we think that as a nation God will give us a pass, that we have total immunity.

But Jeremiah’s journey to the potter’s house is a cautionary tale that reminds us that even the most blessed nations are accountable to God, that no nation has total immunity, that even nations that put their faith and trust in God will have to answer to God for the deeds that they have done. 

On the other hand we are also reminded that no nation is outside of the limits of God’s grace, that God is always ready and willing to forgive, that, as 2 Chronicles 7:14 says, “ if my people who are called by my name humble themselves, pray, seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land.”

Pray for Our Nation

And so this morning I want to invite and remind us to pray for our nation and for the leaders of our country, and for other countries around the world. Many of us here this morning probably have a variety of concerns about the direction that our world is headed. It would be easy to wish or even hope that God might just come and bring judgment on the people who disagree with us, people who we think are trying to take our world down the wrong path.

But instead, let’s pray that our world would heed the warning signs before it’s too late. Let’s pray that people and nations would turn to God. Let’s pray for our own country, that we would truly live out our stated principles of freedom and equality for everyone.

In the Potter’s Hands

Although this passage is primarily speaking about nations, I think there are some individual applications to us as well. Because every time there has been a move of God throughout history, every time that nations have repented and turned to God, it has always consisted of individuals and families who allowed themselves to be used by God, who have allowed God to shape and mold them and lead the way for others to follow their example.

So let’s lead the way. Let’s be examples. Let’s allow ourselves to be sensitive to the work of God in our own lives, let’s allow God to mold us and shape us as clay in the hands of a loving potter.